The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is less than six weeks away. Once the season gets underway all of the focus will be placed on drivers winning races, qualifying for the Chase and contending for a championship.
Much like in 2016, the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series season will see 16 drivers make the Chase and attempt to win a championship. In any given season it’s always possible for all 16 Chase drivers from the previous season to once again qualify for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
In 2017, that will not be the case.
Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards both qualified for the Chase in 2016 but neither will be making the Chase in 2017. Stewart announced prior to 2016 that last season would be his last and Edwards announced in January that he will not be running in 2017.
With that in mind, this article will look at those two Chase spots which will welcome new Chasers this season as well as three other drivers who missed the cut last season but will make it this season.
Apr 18, 2015; Bristol, TN, USA; NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Daniel Suarez (18) prior to the Drive to Stop Diabetes 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
A rookie making the NASCAR Chase? No way that could ever happen right?
Well, Chase Elliott made the Chase in 2016 as did Chris Buescher. On top of that Ryan Blaney had himself a solid season despite coming up short of making NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
Despite not winning, Elliott took the No. 24 machine that was piloted by Jeff Gordon the year prior and had himself a terrific rookie run. In 2017 Daniel Suarez will take over the No. 19 machine that Carl Edwards almost won a championship with in 2016.
JGR comes into 2017 as NASCAR’s best team and Edwards would have come into the season as one of the favorites to win a title. Whole Suarez might not be the driver that Edwards is, he is the defending XFINITY Series champion and that’s saying something. I don’t know if Suarez wins this season but he will be in the Chase.
Apr 8, 2016; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Blaney (21) drives down the front stretch during qualifying for the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Blaney will start in seventh position. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
For a while in 2016 Ryan Blaney was giving Chase Elliott a real run for his money in regards to the Rookie of the Year race. In the end though Elliott outperformed Blaney in the second half of the regular season on his was to a Chase spot.
In 2017 Blaney will be looking for more consistency as this will be his ticket into the Chase. Could Blaney win in 2017? Sure he could. In fact, the restrictor-plate program of the No. 21 team has been their strongest for the last few seasons now which gives Blaney four legitimate shots to win a season.
Winning aside, Blaney will make the Chase this season if he simply improves on his consistency. Bad days in 2017 need to be top-25 runs and not finishes outside of the top-30.
May 13, 2016; Dover, DE, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Ryan Newman (31) during practice for the AAA 400 Drive For Autism at Dover International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O
Ryan Newman was NASCAR’s model of consistency in 2014 and 2015. In 2014 he was one spot on the track in Miami away from winning a championship. In 2015 he used his consistency to make the Chase for a second straight year with RCR. In 2016 that consistency fell off of the map a bit and as a result Newman missed the Chase.
Newman hasn’t won a race since 2013 but it’s his consistent 11th-19th place finishes that always him in contention to make the Chase on points. In 2016 Newman and the No. 31 team struggled and those 11th-19th place finishes turned into runs outside of the top-25 more than he and his team might have liked.
In 2017 there is no reason to think that Newman and his team won’t bounce back. The new deal with RCR won’t hurt matters either.
Apr 24, 2016; Richmond, VA, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Kasey Kahne (5) races during the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports
Kahne might be the biggest longshot on this list. Over the last couple of seasons Kahne has basically fallen off of the map.
In 2012 Kahne made the Chase and he finished 4th in the final standings. Kahne made the Chase again in 2013 and 2014 but those runs resulted in finishes of 12th and 15th. Over the last two seasons Kahne and the No. 5 team have failed to make the Chase, a disappointment to say the least.
In 2015 Kahne finished 18th in the standings and in 2016 he finished 17th while having some strong runs over the final 10 races. Kahne is a talented drivers and HMS is a powerhouse team, it’s hard for me to believe that he will go three seasons in a row without a Chase appearance.
It’s kind of hard to make the Chase when you miss half of the season. Hopefully all will go well in 2016 and Earnhardt Jr. will run an entire season and return to the Chase.
2016 not withstanding, Earnhardt has really found his stride with HMS over the last few seasons. Consistency has come back to the No. 88 team, something that they lacked at the beginning of their run when Earnhardt first joined HMS.
Before 2016 Earnhardt Jr. had a streak of four consecutive seasons of 10+ top-five finishes and 20+ top-10 finishes. Before those four seasons Earnhardt Jr. had only done that on two other occasions during his career.
If all goes as planned, there is little reason to believe that Earnhardt won’t win, make the Chase and contend for a title in 2017. Of all of the drivers on this list Earnhardt Jr. would be the one that is most likely to make the Chase.